Dr. Ted Cross is the Associate Dean and Academic Program Director at Western Governors University. Ted reached out to me after I wrote about my daughter’s boyfriend’s $84K master’s loan offer, letting me know that WGU is doing things a bit differently. Intrigued, I asked Ted if he’d be willing to answer some of my questions – and he graciously agreed.

Q1: What does it cost to get a master’s from WGU? Why is the cost so much lower than almost everyone else? 

The average WGU College of Business graduate student finishes in about 18-months at a cost of around $13,000. There are several reasons WGU can offer quality master’s degrees at an affordable price. WGU is 100% online and doesn’t have the high carrying costs of maintaining a traditional campus. We use technology to deliver content that facilitates learning through competency-based education. What this means in practice is that we build programs and courses aligned with in-demand industry skills and ask students to demonstrate competency in those areas. Students learn and demonstrate what they know and can do rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours.

After proving competency, they move on to the next course, so if students are accelerating, they save time and money. This significantly changes the role of our faculty, who support our students through their personal education journeys. The typical role of one faculty member is divided into multiple roles to provide this student-centric personalization. Finally, by charging a flat rate tuition for every six-month term, students can move through as many courses as they can prove competency in, and our course instructors and mentors are there to help them along the way. 

Q2: Creating and running a quality graduate program is expensive. Faculty are sub-specialists and should be compensated well for their knowledge and time. How is it that WGU is able to offer such a low-cost degree? What are the quality trade-offs, if any, to a master’s at that price point?

I agree that faculty and their expertise are foundational to great graduate education. Of course, they should be paid competitive salaries. The trade-off in offering lower-cost, quality programs, taught by highly trained faculty members is to let go of some of the costly aspects of traditional models that don’t directly impact instruction.

I mentioned the overhead of buildings, but it is also letting go of some of the research budgets if you are not a research institution, it’s letting go of seat hour models in favor of self-paced/on-demand/competency models, and its holding ourselves accountable as administrators for the return on investment a student receives for completing their program. In other words, a student-centric approach.

The use of instructional technology, whether fully online or in a hybrid model, can help open access and create scaled experiences for students that also streamline costs for the institution and the student. We also need a mindset shift. Many critics of scaled, lower-cost programs, point out that they may lack networking or in-person experiences. There is some truth to that critique, but for the vast majority of students in MBA or MS in Leadership programs like WGU’s, these aspects may not be top priorities. For example, our students on average are in their late 30’s and early 40’s, more than half are female, and 82% are employed. These people already have robust networks, people skills, and resumes full of work-related accomplishments. They are interested in filling the gaps in their learning, gaining a needed credential, and accelerating their careers. WGU is the most cost-effective and timely route to those goals.

Q3: Master’s degrees are the “product” that a great many colleges and universities depend on to balance the books. Do you foresee the high-priced master’s going away, to be replaced by something similar to what is offered at WGU or with other low-cost scaled online degree programs? What will this mean for the economic model of much of higher education?

In many ways, the high-priced master’s degree is rapidly disappearing, but not all schools will move to a lower-cost model. Big brands will continue to charge more because they can and have to pay for many of the aspects of a traditional campus that WGU does not have to finance. We are also seeing great interest in micro-credentials (badges and certificates) that offer stand-alone value via industry recognition and quick time to completion, as well as micro-credentials that can stack into traditional graduate degrees.

These models are going to change the way graduate education has traditionally been conceived– i.e., that you don’t earn a credential until the end of a full program, and that a bundle of certificates could not roll up into a degree. Not only will the program models in graduate education change, but the audience is changing as well. EMSI put out a report recently titled “The Demographic Drought.” It points out that declining birth rates and labor market participation have been pronounced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The huge loss of life in the US coupled with early retirements, and the smaller replacement generations X and Y will change the way higher education serves the country.

What all this says to me is that companies will need to retain and retrain people more than ever. Meaning that universities will need to develop programs for adult learners as a primary focus, not just for traditional undergraduate-aged students. It also means that universities will have to take seriously the idea of “life-long-learning” because without repeat customers they are bound to run low on enrollments needed to advance their missions. 



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